In the summer of 1993, I traveled with three Marist Brothers and three college students on a mission trip for five weeks to work at the Alpha school and orphanage on the island of Jamaica, West Indies. Earlier that year, a hurricane had devastated much of the island and had caused serious damage to a number of the buildings on the property of the orphanage. Six of the buildings needed to have their roofs replaced. The roofs were a relatively simple design of wood with sheets of galvanized metal as covering.
We arrived on July 1ST and quickly experienced extreme heat and high humidity that most of us had never known. The two older brothers stayed in a small house on the property which we would all gather in for our meals and prayer each day. Br. Todd, I and our three college volunteers shared a small makeshift room in one of the dorms. Our room had one small window, no fans and a room temperature usually above ninety-five degrees. Needless to say, sleeping was difficult and often uncomfortable.
There were 185 children living at Alpha. They ranged in age from about four up to eighteen. All the children not only went to school, but also were required to learn a trade so that they might gain employment when they graduated at the age of eighteen. There were a number of options for them to choose from in regard to learning a trade. Some would learn carpentry, others automotive work, while many would focus on learning a musical instrument. The school had a long tradition of producing a great band and many of the school’s graduates went on to prominent musical careers. Most of Bob Marley’s band were former Alpha Boys as was Bob Marley’s own brother.
The children lived very simple lives. Each child owned two pairs of shorts, two t-shirts, a change of underwear and a toothbrush. Three times a day they received a bowl full of food. Breakfast was always oatmeal, lunch and dinner were mostly rice with some vegetables and spices added. Everyone drank water. I quickly realized the extent of their poverty as I watched a number of them play soccer on a rocky grassless field that was their soccer pitch. I was amazed at their skill level and their ability to not seem affected by the brutal heat and even more surprised to find out that the reason they were playing with a coconut was that the orphanage could not afford real soccer balls.
We actually arrived on the day of Alpha’s graduation and watched as the seniors received their certificates and would move out and onto the next stage of their lives. After the ceremony, we were introduced to Newton, who had just graduated as the school’s first culinary arts graduate. We were told that he would be cooking all of our dinners for us so that we would not get malnourished during our stay. To say that we ate like kings was an understatement. Our dinners were often simple but each more delicious than the previous one. Thanks to Newton, we all came to savor Jerk Fish, Jamaican beef patties and vegetable curries.
The biggest struggle I had over the first week, apart from the oppressive heat, was that I was going through caffeine withdrawal as a result of not having access to diet coke. At that time, I was very addicted to diet coke and would normally have one or two for breakfast each morning to get my biological engine running for the day ahead. By the end of the first week, I woke one morning with a bad headache and began bartering with God. I told him how I’m not complaining about getting little to no sleep due to the heat or almost getting dehydrated while working on the roofs during the hottest part of the day but I wondered if having a simple diet coke once a day was too much to ask for out of life. I then walked outside and was warmly greeted by a group of the children who anxiously waited for us every morning to come out and play with them for a while before we started work. It then hit me like a ton of bricks. These children didn’t own a pair of pants or even shoes and they were the happiest young people I had ever met. I woke up miserable because I couldn’t have a diet coke. God has a way of answering prayers and my selfish one was answered loudly that morning in a lesson I will never forget. Who was I to complain about not having a diet coke while surrounded by children who had nothing and were always incredibly grateful for the little, they did have in life?
As the days turned into weeks, the children of Alpha quickly captured our hearts by their continuous smiles and laughing. Each Sunday after church their band and choir would perform a special concert for us and each evening after supper, we would have “World Cup” soccer matches between the U.S. and Jamaica. Happily, our U.S. team never could beat those kids from Jamaica.
I was fortunate that summer to spend a good bit of time with Newton, our chef, and over time came to know his life story and how he came to live at Alpha. His mother died while giving birth to him and his father, sadly, was a bad alcoholic. When he was about four years old, his dad went off on a drinking binge and left Newton in the shack on his own for days. When his dad finally returned, he realized that Newton had eaten all the food in their cupboard. He went into a drunken rage and decided he needed to punish Newton for not saving him some food. He took Newton outside and wrapped his two arms in towels and rags, dipped them into kerosene and lit Newton’s arms on fire. Newton's right hand was completely burned off and his left hand had severe damage as well. He was moved to Alpha that afternoon.
When Newton arrived, he was obviously very traumatized. Sr. Susan, who ran the orphanage, took him under her wing. He quickly grew to love her like a mother and especially enjoyed when she would allow him to help her in the kitchen. As the years moved on, Sr. Susan realized that she needed to find a way to offer Culinary Arts as a trade option. It was the only profession that Newton had any interest in and one that he was passionate about pursuing. Sr. Susan arranged for a number of surgeries for Newton’s arms through the great organization, Doctors without Borders. He became the first graduate of Alpha’s culinary class and we were his first clients.
In the months that followed after we left, Newton began a catering business located at Don Bosco orphanage up in Mandeville, which was also operated by the Sisters. Over the years, his catering business has grown into one of the most successful on the island and all of the employees are graduates from the orphanages. In recent years, he has also opened a restaurant which likewise is successful and staffed by graduates of the Don Bisco orphanage.
I have worked with many young people in my life, but few faced as much trauma and difficulties in life as Newton. Yet, he remains one of the most positive and thankful people I have ever met. He has taught me much about forgiveness and letting go of one’s hurts, and how it is more important to focus on those people in our life who have graced and helped us to succeed than hanging on to bitter memories of the past. Newton had every reason in life to be angry and resentful, yet he overcame his disabilities and became successful. He continues to be a model and inspiration to other young people who grow up in a similar fashion to what he knew. He will always be one of my heroes in life. As our time in Jamaica grew to a close, we knew that our lives were forever impacted by the joy and love shown to us by each of the children we had spent that summer with at Alpha.